AD 597 and why it matters

This is the fifth of a series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Read previous installments.

By Derek Olsen

Pious legend tells of Pope Gregory the Great’s walk in the market one day. He encountered some blonde slaves being sold there. Upon inquiring who they were, he was told “Angles”, but replied, “Angels of God shall they be.” Asking of their king, the response was “Aelle”; he responded “Alleluia! for they shall learn to praise God.” Upon asking their tribe, the reply was “Deira”; he replied “they shall flee from the wrath (de ira) of God to faith!” Thus, we are told, Pope Gregory resolved to send missionaries north for the conversion of England. Hailed by some as the moment of the nation’s salvation, castigated by some as the beginning of Romish errors, St Gregory’s sending of Augustine to become the first archbishop of Canterbury in AD 597 surely ranks among the dates that all Anglicans should know.

The mission eventually sent by Gregory, headed by Augustine who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was intended to be a mission of peace, spreading the Word of the Prince of Peace. Instead, it touched off a firestorm. The Church of England was born into a power struggle where bishops battled against one another, invaded one another’s territory, refused to acknowledge one another’s authority, and appealed to far-off pontiffs, all underlain by centuries of imperialism and ethnic strife. You see, the mission to the English began in AD 597; the British Church had already existed in the islands for some 350 years before.

While we’re used to thinking geographically, the early medieval world thought ethnically. And the ambiguities between geography and ethnicity were major sources of conflict. There are three major players in our story: the Celtic Britons who were the inhabitants of the islands when the Romans first came, the Scots who were another Celtic people who lived in Ireland and colonized parts of modern Scotland that they wrested from the Picts, and finally the “English” who were a loose confederations of families and clans made up of a number of Germanic tribes, preeminently the Angles (from whose name we get England and English), the Saxons, and the Jutes.

Christianity came to Britain at the end of the second century through the Romans and a church was established there with the development of a fused Romano-British culture. This society fell with the coming of the English in the fifth century. Fierce pagans who slaughtered, killed, and settled, they displaced many Briton nobles to Brittany (hence the name) and Wales (“Welsh” is actually the English word for their foes and was used to mean both “foreigner” and “slave”). The Britons who did not or could not flee lived as a conquered people and hated their English overlords. The bishops of the Britons, therefore, took a dim view of the missionaries sent from Rome who came to covert their foes and who claimed to hold spiritual authority over the islands—including authority over the British bishops.

The great historian of the evangelism of England—and our primary source for what we know of the era—was the eighth century saint, the Venerable Bede. While a careful compiler of sources and a skillful author, he can hardly be called objective; English by birth, a monastic biblical scholar by training, his history is consciously modeled on the Acts of the Apostles and the conversion of his people is, for his narrative, the key to the peace and prosperity of the islands.

Bede’s history is, in many ways, the story of three churches and their conflicts with one another as well as the pagans they were attempting to convert. Of these, the entrenched Romano-British church comes off the worst; Bede lays most of the fault for the ensuing conflicts at their doorstep for their refusal to evangelize their invaders. He paints the picture of an insular church, distrustful of the English and of Gregory’s missionaries, who abrogated their responsibilities to preach the Gospel to the outsiders and who insisted on holding beliefs contrary to the wider church, focusing specifically on Pelagianism and using the wrong date for celebrating Easter (a matter clarified at the Council of Nicaea).

The Scots’ Celtic church was viewed much more favorably by Bede. While they too held the wrong date for Easter and kept other suspect customs (their monks wore their hair like druids rather than keeping the Roman tonsure), they had a great evangelical zeal and produced great saints and ascetics who taught the Gospel to the people with humility and diligence, converting Scots, Picts, and English alike with no reference to nationality. Too, they ordered themselves around their monastic communities; Celtic bishops were monastic abbots first and foremost. While the Roman missionaries landed in the south of England, the Celtic church started in the north, evangelizing modern-day Scotland and working their way down through Northumbria. Bede’s appreciation for them is due at least in part to his identity as a Northumbrian.

Lastly, the English church converted by the Roman missionaries who claimed authority from and the support of the larger Western Church and its papal head are cast as the heroes by Bede. As in the Acts of the Apostles, signs and wonders abound at the hands of the holy men and virgins of Bede’s history. While they encounter setbacks and martyrdom, their possession of the truth assures their success and Bede is able to bring his history to a satisfactory conclusion, giving an idyllic (and not entirely accurate) view of an England at peace with itself and turned towards God.

Bede pays careful attention to the founding documents of the English church. His history preserves a number of letters sent from Pope Gregory to Augustine of Canterbury and others who participated in his mission. The hallmark of these letters is an evangelical pragmatism; certain passages in them have often been noted by students of Anglican history and rightly seen as keys to the church’s later character. In response to Augustine’s query on liturgical matters, Gregory responds:

“My brother, you are familiar with the usage of the Roman Church, in which you were brought up. But if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.”

Gregory’s instructions display an awareness of and a respect for the formative power of liturgy. He encourages not a liturgical free-for-all nor a permissive scheme of mix-‘n’-match, but an initial opportunity for the new archbishop to carefully select those practices that will be most fitting and most edifying to his mission, selected from the riches of Christian tradition, as a firm foundation for the new church. Liturgy matters; spiritual practices matter—for they form the faith in the body, lips, and heart as well as in the mind.

In a letter to the abbot Mellitus (who was to become the first Bishop of London) Gregory offers more pragmatic council with an eye to evangelism concerning pagan temples:

“…the temples of idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that there temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.”

The practice of creating churches on pagan holy places was not novel—most missionaries to Northern Europe did the same. The difference here is a moderation: the usual practice was the complete demolition of pagan structures, not their re-consecration. This also seems in line with another departure from standard missionary procedure. Bede relates that while Augustine’s first royal convert, King Ethelbert:

“was pleased at the faith and conversion [of great numbers of his people] it is said that he would not compel anyone to accept Christianity; for he had learned from his instructors and guides to salvation that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion.”

In a time when conversions by the sword were more common than not (and that is a dark part of our heritage that we must acknowledge), this passage offers a refreshing change. Despite a zeal for conversion brought by Augustine and his comrades, this zeal was tempered by the realization that methods matters. The ends—even holy ends—do not justify any means.

Thus, AD 597 is a date that every Anglican should know. Augustine’s great mission to Canterbury, the founding of our central see, and the conversion of the English is a key event in Anglican history. Augustine’s mission—and Pope Gregory’s authorization of it—extends an evangelical pragmatism throughout matters of liturgy and mission. At the same time, the English Church was born in the midst of ethnic and factional strife, strife that simply moved to a new key with successive waves of Scandinavian and Norman invasion and devastation. This beginning was no golden age of peace and tranquility, but rather mixed up in the confusion and complexities that characterize incarnate life.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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